Did you hear the one about the atheist orator who was contracted to a speaking engagement at a large university? He was unable to attend his own lecture due to a hurricane that shut down all travel. As he had already been paid for his appearance and refused to return the payment, the university sued him for breach of contract. His legal defense maintained that he had been unable to travel due to an act of God. He was immediately charged with fraud.
In legalese, “Acts of God” are situations, generally referring to natural events such as tornadoes, earthquakes, wildfires, and the like. Often, defendants use Acts of God to describe situations beyond their control. According to one website, “The Act of God designation on all insurance policies…means, roughly, that you cannot be insured for the accidents that are most likely to happen to you.” [i]
Religion journalist Cathleen Falsani writes:
A judge in Nebraska threw out a 2007 lawsuit filed against God by state Sen. Ernie Chambers, who had sought permanent injunction against the Almighty for bringing “acts of terrorism” against the Cornhusker state. Chambers…asked that an order be issued demanding God to cease and desist from causing ‘fearsome floods, egregious earthquakes, horrendous hurricanes, terrifying tornadoes, pestilential plagues, ferocious famines, devastating droughts, genocidal wars, birth defects, and the like.’ Judge Marlon Polk threw out Chambers’ case because the defendant in the case a.k.a. God, could not be served with a summons. [ii]
Today in the book of Revelation, we look at Acts of God for which Ernie Chambers might sue, assuming the events happen within the senator’s lifetime. In chapter six, Jesus the Lamb of God breaks open a book with seven seals. With the opening of the book, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are unleashed upon the earth. Riders on white, red, black, and ashen horses bring conquest, war, famine, and death. Martyrs cry out for vengeance with the opening of the fifth seal. When the sixth is opened there is a worldwide earthquake, a darkening of the sun, reddening of the moon, and blotting of stars from the sky. The sky itself is split apart. All humanity hides, wishing for death “for the great day of…wrath has come (Rev 6:17[iii]).”
When the seventh seal is opened in chapter eight, seven angels blow their trumpets, which bring further destruction. Hail and fire mixed with blood fall from heaven, burning up a third of the earth. A burning mountain falls into the sea, killing a third of all sea life. A falling star called Wormwood poisons a third of all water. A third of the sun, moon, and stars are darkened. The Bottomless Pit is opened and from it comes a demon prince ruling a hoard of unearthly locusts which plague humanity. Murdering horseman-angels are released upon the world, killing with smoke and fire and brimstone.
In chapter sixteen, the seven bowls of wrath are poured out upon the earth. Those who worship the Beast are plagued with sores. The springs and rivers and the sea are filled with blood. The sun scorches people with fierce heat. Darkness and pain and drought plague humanity. The Euphrates dries up. Armies gather for the Battle of Armageddon. Lightning and hundred-pound hailstones come from the sky. But amid all these curses, I think the key verse in chapter sixteen is found in verse eleven: “…They blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains…and they did not repent of their deeds.” God’s entire purpose in all these plagues is to get people to repent—and yet their hearts are so hard that they will not.
There is a problem with using the term Act of God to describe wildfires, windstorms, tsunamis. These occurrences are natural events, caused by laws that God set in motion at the foundation of the world. God does not plan every weather pattern. Extraordinary events like the ones mentioned in Revelation, or like the Great Flood, or the destruction of Sodom, or the plagues of Egypt, are not natural occurrences but supernatural ones. They are exceptions to the rule, not God’s usual method of dealing with sinful humanity. Does God sometimes use these astonishing means to deal out His wrath? Yes—the Bible confirms it. But the problem comes when people try to read divine retribution into every hailstorm or hurricane.
In 2005, many religious leaders said that Hurricane Katrina was divine retribution against both the immorality and Voodoo practices of the New Orleans area. Evangelist Pat Robertson said that the 2010 earthquake in Haiti was the wrath of God for a pact that previous generations had made with the devil.[iv] Of course, natural disasters aren’t the only things people point to as examples of the wrath of God. Some religious leaders are saying that Ebola is God’s wrath against “sins including corruption and immoral acts such as homosexuality.”[v] People who believe the Bible understand that at times God does use war, natural disaster, and disease in order to bring divine wrath. Yet, we also must recognize that not every occurrence of these kinds of things is an indication of God’s displeasure with specific people and specific sins.
First and foremost, the Bible says that God is our loving Creator, who wants to bless rather than curse. Luke 9:55-56 says that when Jesus’ disciples wanted to call fire down on their enemies, “…He turned and rebuked them, [and said, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of, for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.’] And they went on to another village.” Where there may be exceptions to the rule, compassion is generally the way of God. In Matthew 18:14, Jesus says, “So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish.”
Yes, we realize that death and destruction are part of the human experience. Since death came into the world through sin in Eden, it has continued to reign to this day. Every creature that has ever been born has died[vi]. This isn’t the wrath of God, but the consequence of human sin. Romans 5:12 says, that “through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.” Therefore physical death is the inheritance of every human being, and not the direct wrath of God against specific sins. Since everybody will die, it seems silly to point to this specific death or those specific thousand deaths and say, “See there—in that particular case, that’s an example of the wrath of God.”
The book of Job is an example of a righteous man who endured great trouble. Job’s friends said that his suffering was God’s judgment on a sin that he had allegedly committed. The story’s narrative disputes this, insisting on Job’s innocence. Rather than God smiting Job, Satan is the culprit. We learn that there are times when God removes divine protection for the sake of our personal growth. God can even bring great glory out of human suffering. Romans 8:28 says, “…We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” This doesn’t mean that God causes disaster, but that God can use it to accomplish His will, as He did in the life of Job.
Many ancient people (and many modern ones too!) believed that tragedy was always a sign of God’s wrath. Yet Jesus contradicts this notion by saying that God “… causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45).” Jesus often dealt with people who wrongly attributed disasters to the wrath of God. In response, He said, “Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish (Luke 13:4-5).” While God did not cause this tragedy, Jesus says that events like this bring our own mortality more readily into focus. Disasters like this ought to lead us to repentance, so that we are ready to meet our Maker when the time comes.
So we understand that death and suffering and pain are just a part of life. Rather than being the result of specific sins, they are the result of humanity’s general fallen nature. It wasn’t just people who experienced the curse of sin—all of creation suffers along with us. In Matthew 24:8, Jesus describes wars and disasters as “birth pangs.” Similarly, the apostle Paul wrote:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now (Romans 8:18-22).
So if we realize all these things, how do we then differentiate between regular (and sometimes extreme) suffering, and the wrath of God? First, we have to understand that these occasions are exceptions to the rule. Jehovah is not Zeus, always ready to smite people with lightning bolts. Second, as in the cases of the Great Flood or the destruction of Sodom or the plagues on Egypt, God announces judgment beforehand through prophets or angels. The Book of Jonah demonstrates that God’s purpose is to bring people to repentance—God is not some bloodthirsty punisher who takes delight in destruction. As in the case of Nineveh, God forgives when His threats of destruction lead people to repentance. Even when people don’t repent and suffering results, God reminds them that their suffering is because they wouldn’t listen. He gives them another opportunity to repent. Yes, God does at times cause sorrow, but 2 Corinthians 7:10 says, “For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.”
This brings us back to some key verses in the book of Revelation that demonstrate God’s purpose for this time of Tribulation. In Revelation 3:19, Jesus says, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent.” The word “repent” appears twelve times in the book of Revelation. God’s clear desire is not to punish people, but to discipline them with the rod of suffering, and lead them to repentance. Yet Revelation 16:9 says, “Men were scorched with fierce heat; and they blasphemed the name of God who has the power over these plagues, and they did not repent so as to give Him glory.” God longs for human repentance—even His wrath has restoration as its goal.
What did these passages about God’s wrath mean for the original readers of the book of Revelation? That while persecution under Roman oppressors was terrible indeed, things could be much worse. That one day all suffering will come to an end when the world is made new. What will it mean, to a last generation of humanity that goes through this painful time of Tribulation? That godly sorrow leads to repentance, and that the Lord will give them one last chance to turn to Him. What does it mean to us today? That while suffering is a part of everyone’s life, God wants to use it to bring about our good. Through today’s study in Revelation, I hope that we’ll learn that not every disaster or tragedy is an act of God—that would paint God with a terrible kind of brush. Generally, we simply accept suffering as a part of life in this fallen world. I hope we’ll realize that God loves us, and that even when we do suffer, through our tragedy God is trying to bring us back to Himself.
[i] http://www.barricksinsurance.com/insurance_jokes2.html. March 14, 2015.
[ii] Falsani, Cathleen. “You Can Sue God, But You Can’t Win.” November 21, 2008. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/cathleen-falsani/you-can-sue-god-but-you-c_b_136453.html. March 14, 2015.
[iii] All scriptures taken from the NRSV.
[iv] “Pat Robertson Blames Earthquake on Pact Haitians Made with Satan.” Jan 13, 2010. http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2010/01/pat-robertson-blames-earthquake-on-pact-haitians-made-with-satan/. March 14, 2015.
[v] “Is Ebola a Curse from God? Some African Christian Leaders Think So.” August 11, 2014. http://www.religionnews.com/2014/08/11/ebola-curse-god-african-christian-leaders-think/. March 14, 2015.
[vi] With the exceptions of Enoch (Gen 5:24; Heb 11:5) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11)